Danny Yee >> Free Software Advocacy

Information and Development:
Frequently Asked Questions


Everytime I publish something on the importance of free information in development, certain responses and questions always recur. This is an attempt to answer some of the more frequent ones.

    Are information and communications technology important?

  1. What use is information to those who are starving?
  2. How can someone earning less than $1 a day benefit from computers?

    Why does "freedom of information" matter?

  3. Is information really a public good?
  4. Won't this stop innovation and creativity?
  5. What about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

1. What use is information to those who are starving?

Information is critical to all modes of human existence. To a hunter-gatherer it is vital to know where waterholes are to be found, which plants produce fruit when, what the likely weather patterns are, and so forth. While struggles over access to information may seem distant from illiterate Indian farmers, such struggles may decide which seed varieties they are allowed to use and how dependent they are on transnational corporations.

There is more to ending poverty than handing out food. While development agencies do carry out humanitarian relief operations where feeding starving people is the goal, they also support sustainable development projects where the goal is to attack the long-term causes of poverty. The idea is to help people build resources that will allow them to take control of their lives - and that will persist when donor funding stops. Here education, training, capacity building, and organisation are central - and freedom of information and communications are critical.

There's no unitary group of "the poor" or "the starving". Only a small fraction of of those in poverty are actually starving. Actually asking people what they want or need will produce a broad range of answers - like those of us who live in "affluence", those who live in "poverty" vary in circumstances, goals, and priorities.

2. How can someone earning less than $1 ever afford a computer?

It is a serious mistake to assume that the only approach to Information Technology is a personal computer for every individual. We need to think about communities instead of individuals, about different approaches to information and communications. A single point of Internet access in a village could provide great benefits to both individuals and the community, and this is within the reach of even the poorest villages, with a little help.

3. Is information really a public good?

Whether or not information is or should be a public good is an intriguing question for political science, and a topic which will keep Slashdot readers busy for years to come. But in practice it is clear that some information is public and available to all (at least in principle), while other information is proprietary to a greater or lesser extent (often depending on legal jurisdiction and enforcement).

Where and how much information is public is a live political issue, being contested in many places, not just an abstract theoretical problem. I don't pretend to take a neutral stance in this struggle: I write to try to change people's thinking.

It is also important to note that there's a whole range of possible positions on information access rights. One could oppose software and biotech patents, for example, while not rejecting copyright. Or one could argue for different rights associated with software and documentation than with novels and scientific papers.

4. Won't this stop innovation and creativity?

If people have to share knowledge, creativity and information at zero cost (without copyright and patents), won't that stop the process of innovation and creativity?

The quest for knowledge is as fundamental to human nature as any profit motive. It is only recently that the quest for knowledge has become a means to capital accumulation.

Most basic innovations have been carried out in a framework of open communications - the foundations of science, the Internet, jazz music, free software. Private capital has always built on public knowledge, often contributing little to that store in return. Long-term rents on knowledge will reduce its spread and hence the possibilities for new innovation.

See Brian Martin's Against intellectual property for a more detailed argument.

5. What about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

"Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author." (UDHR, Article 27, Section 2)

How do we reconcile this human right with a right to knowledge and communication?

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